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Easing into Italy

We had 10 days for our first visit to Italy. Instead of trying to cover multiple cities, we split our time between two very different areas – Sorrento and Rome, which was an introduction to the splendors of Italy. It left us yearning to return.Sorrento is about two hours south of Rome by train. It was an ideal starting point and base for visiting three fantastic archeological sites and the best coastal scenery in the world.Sorrento has been a haven for tourists since the time of the Greeks. It sits atop a sea cliff overlooking the bay of Naples, with spectacular views of the Island of Capri and Mt. Vesuvius. The blue-green shades of the bay are created by the varying depths of the water. Lemon and orange groves scattered throughout the town add to its beauty and perfume the air.There are only a few major streets but a maze of alleys, where one can explore the wares of local craftsmen, such as inlaid wooden boxes, cameos, embroidery and metalworkLong steps to Marina Grande take visitors to an ancient Greek gate; on the other side they can see tile work depicting religious scenes.The people are friendly, and the town is safe. Visitors can roam the streets without worrying about pick-pockets or panhandlers, often found in bigger Italian cities. In the evening, locals crowd the streets, walking arm-in-arm in what is known as the “Sorrento stroll.”Sorrento has an endless supply of wonderful restaurants. Iíd recommend the mussels and tomatoes in garlic and wine sauce, but, no matter your preference, fresh seafood, meat, produce and spices along with a bottle of red wine from a local vineyard provides a gastronomic treat.Sorrento is famous for Lemoncello, a liqueur made from locally grown lemons. Diners often receive a complimentary glass at the end of their meal.Sorrento is the last stop on the Circumvesuviana Railway, which runs every 30 minutes, making it convenient to Pompeii, Herculaneum or Naples.Visiting PompeiiI dreamt about visiting Pompeii ever since grade school, when I first learned about the city buried in 79 A.D. by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.An eye-witness account of the eruption, subsequent earthquake and tsunami was recorded by Pliny the Younger in two letters to the historian, Tacitus. Pompeii was a thriving city with 20,000 people at the time of the eruption. Most of the inhabitants were killed by sulfuric acid the mountain spewed onto the city before burying it in ash. Much of the city’s fine art, including statues, mosaic floors and beautifully decorated fresco walls were removed by Charles III, King of Naples, in 1748, when excavations at Pompeii began.Today, the majority of artifacts reside in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. However, much of the 160-acre town of Pompeii is intact, allowing visitors a feel for the grandeur of the ancient Pompeii. A good guide book can direct one to the forum, the amphitheater, the baths and many houses and temples of Pompeii.In the rooms are the remaining frescoes. From the steps of the small amphitheater, there are photo opportunities of the surrounding areas. The lupanor or brothel features Pompeii’s famed erotic frescoes. The Villa of Mysteries is a great place to end a visit to Pompeii. The Villa was not unearthed until 1909 and contains more than 60 rooms of brightly colored red and orange frescoes.Herculaneum ñ a favoriteThe following day, we visited Herculaneum (Ercolano). When Vesuvius exploded, Ercolano was a small beach-front community of about 5,000 people. The eruption buried the town under 60 feet of mud. While much smaller than Pompeii, the village was wealthier and remains mostly intact.All the guide books warned us to stay away from the “unofficial guides” outside the gates of Pompeii. Maybe we were still suffering from jet-lag, but when a guide with an official looking tag latched on to us inside of Herculaneum we didn’t give it a second thought. However, after he showed us the first house, that tag disappeared and we could not think of a tactful way to get rid of him. While his English was not the best, he added an interesting bit of color to our visit.I enjoyed Herculaneum more than Pompeii because the villas still had their inlaid marble floors and wonderful frescos. Common objects such as rope were also preserved, and many buildings still had their upper stories. While Herculaneum is not as vast as Pompeii, it is much easier to get a sense of what everyday life was like in 79 A.D.On to PaestumThe next morning we visited Paestum, a town about two hours south of Sorrento.Paestum is famous for three of the best preserved Doric Greek temples ñ built around 650 B.C. ñ in the world. The town was settled by a colony from Peloponnese. While the temples dominate the site today, they were only part of a larger complex that included baths, a forum, theaters, minor temples, and many small homes. A museum of the artifacts found at the site sits across the street from the temples.Paestum was preserved over the years because it became difficult to reach when roads crumbled after the fall of the Roman Empire, and people avoided the area because the swampy terrain created plagues of malaria.Mark Twain raved about the site on his Grand Tour in 1867, but today it seems to have escaped the large fleets of tour buses, making it a wonderful, less crowded area for roaming and taking pictures.The most beautiful coastline Ö and back to SorrentoWe had booked a driver for our trip, and after our visit to Paestum we headed for the Amalfi coast, which stretches from Salerno in the south to Positano in the north. The road is billed as the most scenic highway in the world. I had to agree. But itís also one of the most dangerous, so I recommend a driver who knows the road.In many places, the coastal road is too narrow for two-way traffic, so tour buses are only allowed to use the southerly route. Northbound drivers find themselves backing up a number of times along the 30-mile highway to let buses pass. Drivers can’t enjoy the scenery because they are too busy keeping the car from plunging over the cliff into the Mediterranean Sea.But around every hairpin turn is another gorgeous view of the sea or a glimpse of one of the 12 small towns clinging to the cliff. Constructed on terraces, these villages look like they are defying gravity.We stopped in three towns. Ravello, with rose gardens and a stark-white town square, sits 1,500 feet above the sea. Amalfi was a medieval maritime republic and has Moorish alleyways and a gigantic cathedral that dominates the town. Positano is a beautiful vertical village; leave the high-heels at home to descend the long staircase down to the sea.After safely making it back to Sorrento, we celebrated with a bottle of excellent Italian red wine.The next morning, we boarded the train for Rome. As we did, the accordion player started his rendition of ìCome Back to Sorrento.î I was sorry I had to leave.In the May 5 NFH issue, Kathy takes us to Rome.

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